Education institution’s complaint handling “made things worse”

1 October 2013

A workplace investigation conducted by the ACT Public Service Commissioner has determined that a major Canberra educational institution should apologise for not preventing incidents of workplace bullying.

In a full report on the inquiry, Commissioner Andrew Kefford said that the lack of corrective action at the institute that was cause for concern.

“The fact that complaints were received about the workplace experiences of 42 current and former […] employees covering more than 10 years is clearly evidence in the institute’s management of people,” wrote Mr Kefford, as reported by the Canberra Times.

“That some of these matters are still contested is evidence in itself that the process used to deal with those issues could have been done better.”

Mr Kefford cited the poor handling of some cases as contributing to the problem, “It is unfortunate that the way in which a small number of cases […] have been managed has made things worse, not better,” he wrote.

Mr Kefford and his office have been investigating the problem of workplace bullying at the institute in question since before May, after receiving a number of complaints regarding the experiences of current and former staff. A “small number of cases” also involved students.

As a result, Mr Kefford has put forth eight reform recommendations for the institute. At the top of that list, according to the Canberra times, is a formal apology to those who were victims of workplace bullying.

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This story is a good example of how workplace bullying can become a serious and ongoing problem if adequate preventative and corrective measures are not taken. As shown by Mr Kefford’s comments, it is vital that all complaints received by an organisation are subjected to thorough investigation.

A workplace investigation can provide insight into any reported incidents and establish if bullying has taken place. Depending on the scope of the investigation, it may also give an indication of any underlying cultural problems within the organisation. Employers may wish to engage an external investigator where an internal investigation may not be considered sufficiently objective, for example if a complaint involves senior employees.

Where no formal complaint has been received but there are suspected behavioural or cultural issues, employers may want to consider conducting a workplace inquiry. An inquiry can assess the general atmosphere in a team or workplace and identify risks which may be contributing to negative feelings or a poor culture. Management style, inappropriate behaviour or entrenched poor practices may contribute to team members feeling uncomfortable and can affect attitudes and team dynamics, which can lead to complaints later on.

While the findings here are certainly serious, Mr Kefford has also acknowledged that much of the media coverage surrounding the investigation has been unfair.

“It would be a significant and damaging overstatement to describe the overall culture of [the institute] as toxic,” wrote Mr Kefford.

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